If rhino poaching continues at its current rate the South African rhino population will shrink by over 900 come year end.
While it appears poachers have the upper hand in what SANParks chief executive David Mabunda has called “a low intensity war” against those intent on killing as many rhino as possible to supply a burgeoning Far Eastern market more anti-poaching initiatives are in the pipeline.
Another effort to cut the carnage could soon see another aerial platform keeping a weather eye on poachers and their nefarious actions.
In collaboration with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), a 40-year-old conservation non-government organisation, Americans Professor Tom Snitch and Chris Miser, designer of the Falcon unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), came to South Africa earlier this year.
Snitch’s department at the University of Maryland has developed mathematical algorithms which provide geospatial predictive maps using high resolution satellite images. These can be used to predict high risk poaching areas at any particular time – a good indicator of where a UAV should be flown and anti-poaching units deployed on the ground.
The pair and Miser’s Falcon were given permission to use Craig Spencer’s Olifants West Nature Reserve as a trial ground.
“The Falcon was flown on day and night flights at Olifants and also on some neighbouring reserves,” said EWT rhino project manager Kirsty Brebnor said.
“It has a range of approximately 10kms, can fly for 90 minutes on rechargeable batteries and has an auto-pilot function where it will follow a pre-determined flight path, but this function can also be overridden should something of interest be spotted. While the thermal imagery was more difficult to interpret, our abilities definitely improved with experience and as we grew more familiar with the environment.
“The Falcon UAV certainly proved its merit and could potentially be a useful tool in the fight against rhino poaching, especially if used in combination with Snitch’s mathematical models, which should be drafted for the area at the end of September 2013.”
All things being equal the results of the Olifants’ trials will see a Falcon added to the growing inventory of aerial platforms employed to track down and stop poachers before they can start their grisly work.
Currently one of Denel Dynamics’ Seeker UAVs is doing anti-poaching duty in the Kruger National Park, alongside the park’s own fixed and rotary-winged aircraft and a Seabird Seeker reconnaissance aircraft compliments of the Paramount Group.
Figures released this week by Minister Edna Molewa’s Department of Environmental Affairs show 446 rhino killed by poachers to date this year. Kruger is top of the list having lost 280 of this Big Five species. Last year poachers killed 668 rhino in South Africa.